19 March 2006

On the Road Again

So tonight I'm in the Upper Hudson Valley. Tomorrow I'm attending a seminar on alpaca medicine for veterinarians hosted by Spruce Ridge Farm. I drove down this afternoon and waved as I drove past Northampton, where mamacate lives (Hi, Cate!). I realized too late, though, that I had forgotten to bring any knitting with me, so I'm contenting myself with watching South Park - the Sparky the Gay Dog episode. It's a rare treat since we don't have cable (or get television reception).

I also wanted to thank Sister Sue for her comments on last night's banquet. Some very wonderful and very hard-working people have put much of their lives into making Maine a better, more fair place, and it was good to see them recognized.

I helped a bit on the first No on 1 campaign in '95 - that time it was to stop an initiative to shut lgbt folk out of any access to basic civil rights. Then in '97 I moved away for graduate school right as we were in a campaign (ultimately unsuccessful) to keep the fundies from repealing a new civil rights law in referendum. Although I wasn't able to vote in that election, I wrote the following piece, which was published in a couple of Maine newspapers. I think it still speaks to the importance of this law, and I'm so glad I was back in Maine this past year to be able to cast my ballot.

A few months ago, I left Maine to attend graduate school in North Carolina. The past two years I had been living back in Maine were good ones for me, both on an individual level and as a member of the state's lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community.

In 1995, we defeated the Concerned Maine Families referendum attempt to deny queer folks civil rights protection. Then last May, Governor King signed into law L.D. 1116, which added "sexual orientation" to the state's civil rights law. It was a historic event, and it was indescribably exciting to have been a part of it.

Shortly after I moved, however, The Christian Civic League (CCL) of Maine, with the assistance of the Christian Coalition, produced a sufficient number of petition signatures to block implementation of the new law and bring it to a referendum vote. The referendum will be decided in a special election on February 10, 1998. If the CCL is successful in this referendum, it will be the first time in this nation that a statewide law of this sort has been repealed.

The prospect of repeal worries me very profoundly, as I hope to return to Maine one day. As I ponder what might happen if the CCL and its executive director, Michael Heath, prevail, I find my mind continually coming back to one thought - Charlie Howard.

Most Mainers probably remember Charlie Howard. He was a young gay man from Bangor who was murdered in the Summer of 1984. He was attacked by three young men who saw him on the street and thought it would be fun to beat up a faggot. They brutally beat him into unconsciousness then threw him off the State Street bridge into the Kenduskeag Stream, where he drowned.

I was fifteen years old at the time and spending the Summer with my grandparents in Hancock County. I vividly remember watching the news report of Howard's murder on Channel 2. I learned a frightening lesson that day: Faggots get killed. It would take me another seven years to learn to stop running from the fear that message caused and to reclaim my identity and soul. Charlie Howard's murderers did more than rob him of his life. They helped rob me of my adolescence.

Michael Heath and his followers have said they don't condone anti-gay violence. They frequently spew empty platitudes about "loving the sinner, hating the sin." And yet they still use such words as "vile," "evil," "perverse," "sick," "abnormal," and "abomination" to describe queer folks, and say that we are "a lie from the Pit of Hell."

The effects of such hate speech are well known. It relegates the targeted group to an inferior, even subhuman, status in the minds of their attackers, making them that much easier to attack. One need only consider the Holocaust or, in this country, the brutal lynchings of African-Americans between the end of the Reconstruction and the rise of the civil rights movement.

And since the Religious Wrong objects to comparing sexual orientation to "immutable" characteristics such as race, consider the recent horrors in Bosnia, where the so-called "ethnic cleansing" had little or nothing to do with race or language, but rather was based on religious affiliation. Religion is most clearly, to use the CCL's phraseology, a "lifestyle choice" and not immutable, yet it enjoys the same protection the CCL wishes to deny those of us who were born homosexual or bisexual.

The reality is that anti-gay hate speech places both straight and queer people alike at risk. It would not have mattered to Charlie Howard's murderers if he had been straight, simply because they PERCEIVED him as gay, and therefore less human and less deserving of life.

This type of violence is not a thing of the past, either. In the Fall of 1996, a 15-year-old Windham High School student was attacked by a group of teens when one his attackers yelled, "Let's go beat up the fag!" The victim had his elbow broken by one of the attackers who was swinging a metal lock wrapped in a bandanna. A similar incident occurred in Oxford around the same time.

Then in May 1997, a suit was filed against a 16-year-old Cony High School student for having brutalized a younger student, whom he perceived to be gay, over a period of greater than four months. The 15-year-old victim had been beaten, kicked, had his head slammed into the ground, and had been slammed into lockers repeatedly, despite multiple attempts at intervention by teachers, administrators and Augusta police.

At the time of the Windham and Oxford incidents, Assistant Attorney General Steve Wessler reported a significant increase in anti-gay violence (Heath and company have repeatedly accused Wessler of excessively inflating these figures but have never offered any evidence to substantiate their claims.). This increase corresponded roughly with Concerned Maine Families' anti-gay referendum in November 1995. It also parallels what has happened in other states, such as Colorado and Oregon, as a result of Religious Wrong-sponsored anti-gay referenda there.

Surely the connection between hate speech and hate crimes is apparent to Michael Heath.His predecessor, Jasper Wyman, used to use the same inflammatory rhetoric that Heath now uses. Wyman, however, finally realized that his words led to others' violence and has cited that publicly as one of the main reasons he left the CCL. Heath must know this, but he apparently does not care.

Of course, I still haven't said what this has to do with L.D. 1116 itself. It's quite simple, really. By giving us some measure of security in our places of work and in the greater community in the state, L.D. 1116 will better allow us to challenge the lies and stereotypes that groups like the CCL continue to perpetuate. While this won't eliminate the violence overnight, or even eliminate it entirely, it will make our lives safer in the long run.

The CCL understands this well. On their web site they assert, not incorrectly, that "the major reason gay people want these laws is to gain social approval of their lifestyle." If we have societal approval - i.e., society ceases to be anti-gay - then we will cease to be targets for anti-gay violence.

However, they also affirm their desire that homosexuality remain "universally regarded as immoral and perverse." The implications of their desired societal mindset are not lost on those of us who are its target.

If the CCL wins this referendum, the likely end result is obvious and probably inevitable - more Charlie Howards. This is because no matter how much they rant about the "homosexual lifestyle," mythical lifestyles never get murdered. Real gay people, however, do.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this piece. So thoughtful, articulate and honest. I wish more people who are oppossed to important legal protections such as this law would really, truly read something like this. You know, take off their filters and blinders for a few minutes and just read this thing that was written by a person. When they use phrases like "love the sinner" -- they avoid having to think about a human being. They are able to place labels that separate someone from their own humanity and it is a lot easier to legislate against and be violent towards and spew hateful rhetoric about those who are "other." I try to keep in mind that laws like this do get passed and that people have changed and things are a little better. But I fully relate to that feeling that being something can get you killed or raped or brutally beaten. I can't remember a time since I was a very young child that I didn't have some constant fear lurking in the back of my mind that simply being a woman made me a target for violence. And that changes you. Anyway, I am afraid this comment has gotten rather long. I was just moved and, well, thank you again.

Susan said...

What a well-written and thoughtful piece. Thanks for posting it! I particularly remember the '95 "no on 1" campaign, even though I could count on one hand the number of visits I had made to Maine at that point in my life. I was dating Phil, and I remember being in his dorm room one evening while he was on the phone with his dad arguing about why he (his father--Phil had already voted absentee) needed to vote no on question 1. If I recall, his dad had been swayed back then by the "they don't need special rights" claim which was a big argument from the 'yes on 1' folks at the time. I'm not sure that the emploring phone call from his son changed his mind, but I'm happy to report that my father-in-law voted No this last time around. People change. It just takes time. If we've learned anything from all this, it's to keep talking, keep sharing stories, keep making connections. Eloquent editorials like the one you wrote certainly help in a big way, too.

On a completely unrelated note--I'm wearing my new alpaca socks today. My feet have never been so happy.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that was you! Well, hi back! Next time stop for a yarn crawl. We don't disappoint, here in the valley.

Give 'em heck, Maine.

Sneaksleep said...

Great piece. Oh, and Sparky the Gay Dog is my *favorite* South Park episode. :-)

Kiturgy said...

Great letter, Mel! Thanks for sharing. Wanna come knit with us in Pmouth Friday am?

(um, yeah, this is Kit in another form =)